The Hernando County school district suffered a setback Monday in its effort to secure sites for new schools.
A divided Planning and Zoning Commission narrowly rejected the district's request to rezone 41 acres at Deer Street and Linden Drive in Spring Hill for a school to ease crowding at nearby campuses, perhaps as early as August 2005.
Its recommendation goes to county commissioners next month for a final ruling.
About 100 residents opposed to the rezoning packed the hearing room, with several exhorting the planning board to consider the negative impact a new school would have with close to 2,000 car and bus trips added to the neighborhood roads.
The 3-2 vote against the rezoning brought no cheers or applause.
"It's not over," said Don Nesensohn, who lives on Hoover Street in the Orchard Park subdivision. "It's just starting."
He and others understood that the outcome left county commissioners plenty of wiggle room to allow a school on the property. They noted that planning board chairman Nick Nicholson said, "I think a school belongs here," just before casting the deciding vote against the rezoning.
School Board member Gail David, who attended the meeting, suggested that the panel's recommendation gave county commissioners little guidance.
"I think one of the messages it sends to the commissioners is, you had a split vote on planning and zoning. You'll probably have to look at the information and make a decision yourselves," David said.
She questioned Nicholson's logic in voting against the rezoning, stating his request for a different type of school than the one proposed was not really in the county's purview. David said she hoped the County Commission would consider the School Board's request with an open mind.
The hearing Monday was continued from a month ago. County planners had recommended denial of the rezoning, saying a high-intensity school amid a sea of single-family homes was unsuitable for the neighborhood.
Further, they noted, the county comprehensive land use plan requires that schools be built on major roads, called collectors or arterials. Linden Drive is neither.
The board deferred action, asking for a traffic analysis, a revised site plan and a report about sinkhole activity in the area.
Much of the discussion Monday focused on the traffic report, which indicated that the roads could handle the increased number of trips without severely damaging the neighborhood.
Neighbors argued that the surges in traffic at dropoff and pickup times would grind usually easy travel to a halt and disrupt their lifestyles.
"The magnitude of the proposed project will overwhelm our quiet neighborhoods," said Susan Fucci.
Greg Kuda, who lives on Linden Drive, put it more bluntly.
"I moved into a quiet neighborhood and want to keep it that way, and for sure I don't want a multilane highway out in front of my house," he said.
County engineer Charles Mixson bolstered their position by telling the planning board that peak traffic could push Deer Street and Stephanie Drive "beyond what is usually acceptable."
Planning director Larry Jennings added that the information provided by the school district had not altered his recommendation against the site.
"The issues to us are the same that we've been facing all along," Jennings said, mentioning that he never thought the roads could not handle the added cars and buses.
Planning board members Anthony Palmieri and Anna Liisa Covell said the weight of the arguments against the rezoning was heavy. Neither was willing to overrule the comprehensive plan requirements.
Board members Al Sevier and Bob Dewitt were equally convinced that the Deer Street site was ideal for a school. Nothing the neighbors had to say swayed them otherwise.
"I don't know where you're going to put schools in Spring Hill that people want it," Dewitt said after the meeting.
It was Nicholson, whose wife, Sandra, sits on the School Board, who offered the mixed message of the day. At once, he said the site was perfect for a school and he would not support the rezoning.
Nicholson argued that the school district should build an elementary school there, not a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus. He also said the district should use 20 acres, leaving the rest for home development.
"I believe a school belongs on this property," he said. "Just not under this configuration."
His wife, School Board Vice Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson, said at a recent School Board meeting that she did not support purchase of the full 41 acres. She also said the site was good only for an elementary school.
School district planning director Heather Martin said she expected to brief the School Board on the planning board's move and seek direction during a workshop later this month.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.